With winter tours to Bangladesh and India on the horizon for England and lingering doubts over Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, there has been much debate about the system for producing young spinners, and the introduction of a rule change to the toss in county cricket with a view to providing more spinner-friendly surfaces. Amid the gloom, however, there have been promising signs in the emergence of a clutch of young legspinners, with Josh Poysden of Warwickshire, and teenagers Mason Crane of Hampshire and Matt Parkinson of Lancashire all performing creditably in Division One, the latter two picking up five-fors. Parkinson's coach at Lancashire, Ashley Giles, describes his own development as a spinner and offers his thoughts on English cricket's development of the next generation of young spinners.
You started life as a seamer then converted to spin. How did that happen?
I was about 15 when I started having back problems. I couldn't bowl seam, so ended up bowling spin in the nets one day. They came out all right, so I ended up dropping down from the 1st XI at Guildford CC and bowling them for the third team. I got 21 wickets in four weeks, went up to seconds as a spinner/batter, and when I was fully fit, I went back to seamers and fully converted at 18.
You were recognised as a slightly unusual over-the-wicket bowler, a style that worked well enough to play 54 Tests. Did being a converted seamer help you develop your own, relatively unconventional, method?
People talk about me as an over-the-wicket bowler, but I did do both. I think almost exactly half of my Test wickets were over and round. As a seamer I was very accurate and I think that was one of my strengths - having a really strong base: my bowling action - and I think I carried that into spin.
What do you look for in teenage spinners?
Good solid basics: a strong action that's repeatable under pressure. You see a lot of schoolboy spinners, bowling a schoolboy pace - it's quite loopy and slow, with quite a jumpy action - but someone like Monty [Panesar] always had a really strong, powerful base to work from, and under pressure you need to fall back on that. You've also got to spin it - that's your job. But your control is very important. You don't get away with bowling much shit, because you don't stay on. As a lone spinner it's a pretty lonely world at times and there's a lot of burden on you to deliver. You can have four seamers in a team, but as soon as one [pitch] spins, everyone's looking at you to get seven- or eight-for. So the other element is mental strength. You want guys who've got a bit about them, who'll deal with that, who are resilient, because it's a tough world.
There's obviously a fairly long list of young spinners who suddenly get the yips and make the opposite conversion, to seamers. Is that something that can be assuaged by good management and captaincy?
I don't understand the yips. I don't know where it comes from. I never suffered from it, although there were times when I didn't know where it was going. But I never bowled balls into the roof of the net or the side of the net, or double bouncers. But again, if you've got good basics to fall back on - I talk about schoolboy actions, generally very short strides and non-rhythmical run-up, and it's all a bit jerky - there's less to go wrong.
"I think divisional cricket has been really good and made it very competitive. The problem we're facing now is that it's creating a bit of a "must stay up" culture at some of the big clubs, including ours"
What about good captaincy during that transitional period - the body's growing, trying to hit the same length might feel totally different because you're four inches taller all of a sudden? Shane Warne's advice for young spinners is, "attack with the ball, defend with the field", which takes a bit of the pressure off the 16-year-old starlet to hit his length since he doesn't have to worry about injury to close catchers. Do you go along with that approach?
I do. I think you're better off going out to in, rather than in to out. So start with a defensive field. Warnie's spoken a lot about getting some overs under your belt, getting into the game. Try and bowl some dots, and later you can play with your field and build pressure that way. But for young spinners it is tough. Generally wickets in this country are more conducive to seam bowling, so they need time. Spinners can't really come on and bowl five-over spells, generally.
If a young spinner is turning it square but bowling a couple of boundary balls an over, what do you do?
They've got to find a way. There's pressure on captains and coaches at whatever level to win games of cricket. When they play, spinners have just got to try and let go and concentrate on performing in the match. Even if you do spin it, you're not going to survive in first-class cricket bowling two four-balls an over, let alone international cricket.
What about setting their own fields? Is that something you'd encourage in young spinners? Have them be able to answer the question: how are you trying to get the guy out?
Certainly regarding the setting of fields, it's hugely important that spinners captain themselves. I know that Michael Vaughan had most confidence in me when I was confident. He'd go, "Right, what do you want?" And I'd go, "Bang, bang, bang" rather than "I don't know. What do you think? You set the field." I don't think that's very healthy. It's often a lone role [in England] and you have to be responsible for that part of the team. But another important aspect for the captain is doing it less by the textbook: one over before lunch; 30 overs with new ball, now let's get the spinner on.
Get them into the game early. You can always bring them out of the game. But the responsibility works both ways. Spinners can't have it all their own way. They've still got to give the team and the captain some control.
If there are seamers that keep a lid on the run rate then spinners' economy rates become less significant than their strike rates.
That was my role in [the Ashes in] 2005. It was to hold an end. We had the best seam attack in the world at the time.
What about the next phase: 18 to 21, 22 years old? If you've given such a cricketer a three-year deal, how much of that is investing in the future and how much is investing in something now? Can you keep waiting for tangible returns until they're 24, 25?
I think you can. Spinners do develop late. Graeme Swann was a "generational spinner" - to take over 200 Test wickets, not many English spinners have done that. And he came into the side pretty late [28 years old]. I was signed at 19 and I started playing at 22, 23. But that period leading into that was very rocky. I was still finding my way, a way, and some sort of method and consistency in my action and performance. Second XI cricket can be challenging: three-day games, club grounds, generally seamer-friendly. When do you get on?
I think one of the best things I did was go away in the winter. I spent four winters in South Africa. The first one was incredibly tough, 19 years old, almost got laughed at a little bit. I didn't perform very well, but for some reason they asked me back. The next year I didn't do very well with the ball but I averaged 100 with the bat. I started to stand on my own two feet a bit.
The game nowadays is full of coaches, advice, support. The focus is psychological as well as physiological, and we're accountable for what players do to a degree, but we also need to make the players accountable. We shouldn't be trying to produce clones. We can help and pass on advice, but it's also up to them to create their own destiny.
There's always a temptation for coaches to justify their presence through intervening in a player's development rather than standing back and letting them find their own destiny.
Intervention is like a sniper's rifle. It can be really useful, in that it's pinpoint and direct. It gets the job done and helps in certain situations. It can be just plain lethal in the wrong hands. If you pick the wrong time with a player, it can take you weeks to come back from that.
One of the ways I've changed as a coach is that I've tried to be less "there" [in the foreground]. One of things we say to players is, "Find a way." Most of the stuff I do with bowlers and batters is about good basics: good balance, good alignment, good rhythm, direction of energy. You get that stuff going well, you've got a chance. I wouldn't dream of telling Matt Parkinson how to bowl a googly. I've never bowled one. At 19, he's been doing it for years. I might tell him when to bowl a googly.
What about putting young spinners in the team? How big a decision is that for you as a coach/selector?
Obviously, they have to be ready. But whatever you think, there's no guarantee. You have to be fairly sure, because it's a pretty harsh environment to chuck a young spinner into. But it comes back to their lone role. If they are a seamer, and there are two or three experienced guys around them, you can take more of a gamble.
You put Parkinson in for his debut against Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott, so you must have been fairly confident.
Absolutely. If they're good enough, get 'em in. Age shouldn't be a barrier. I see no reason to hold people back just because they're 18, 19 or whatever. Sometimes people surprise. For example, Liam Livingstone this year with the bat - we weren't sure, because some of the stuff we saw we didn't like, and thought they might be indicators that he might not be ready. But actually, lifting him a level has transformed his game. He's risen with that challenge. There's no reason spinners can't do the same.
"Michael Vaughan had most confidence in me when I was confident. He'd go, 'Right, what do you want?' And I'd go, 'Bang, bang, bang' rather than 'I don't know. What do you think? You set the field"
What have you made of the pitches following the change in the toss rule, insofar as they are helping England producing spinners?
The pitches have been better this year, certainly in the first part of the season, although that might change down the home stretch as teams chase results. So the games being longer has brought more spin into the game. At least that's how it appears. I think wickets in general have offered a bit more of late, although they don't all rag. It's my view that at the Test grounds, because of the drainage, more moisture has been pulled out from the block. That, with the toss, has helped spinners. Last year some wickets resembled shag-pile carpets.
What about two-divisional cricket? How does that affect blooding youngsters, and spinners in particular?
I think divisional cricket has been really good and made it very competitive. There are some really good sides in Division One. The problem we're facing now is that it's creating a bit of a "must stay up" culture at some of the big clubs, including ours. That can lead you away from a development and playing-young-players approach to quick-fix "what can we get in?", whether that be overseas, Kolpaks, etc. Form is cyclical and you should be able to go back to come forward again. That's part of the process we're in. Parkinson, Haseeb Hameed, Saqib Mahmood… Livingstone is 21, [Alexander] Davies - to give those guys a good run at it, you need to be sure you can compete as well. That's why I'd favour going into a conference system, with playoffs at the end.
So that there wasn't the threat of the trapdoor all the time?
Yeah, it's a threat to us coaches. The world of being a coach [in one job] for 20 years is gone.
If you had a talented young spinner but the role was nailed down by a senior spinner, how would you handle him from the point of view of helping England's overall production of spinners: advise him to go on loan?
Yeah, could do. There's also 2nd XI cricket, and some of our guys are linked to Minor Counties. You've got to get overs under your belt, including practising. We're in a pretty lucky position in that we've got Parky, Simon Kerrigan, then Stephen Parry and Adam Lilley, who are probably more one-day focused. It's quite challenging managing their expectations, particularly when you don't play on a lot of spinning wickets. Ultimately it's down to them. We can offer them a form of security which is a longer contract, 12 months of the year, but with that there's no guarantee of playing. I do think the market will become much more open and movement will become much more free, certainly the loan market. If a gap's developing between the two divisions in red-ball cricket, I think it would be quite healthy to loan, the only issue being perception towards coaches. Aren't they doing their jobs properly? Why aren't their players performing?
Do you think T20 is making it harder for young spinners these days, and it's harder to switch between the two while still getting overs under your belt, while learning the game?
I think it'll be better next year, but I never had a problem with it [switching between formats]. I used to bowl a lot at the death in 40- or 50-over cricket. I think T20's given some spinners a new lease of life, because of the importance of the role in T20. It doesn't promote the repetition and honing of good skill, because those that do tend to go out of the park because batsmen know what's coming. There are guys who, going back to red ball from T20, have found it challenging.
Would you then consider keeping a young spinner away from white-ball cricket until their early twenties, so they could get those basics?
That's all good in principle, but there's also winning games of cricket. Again, we're a bit blessed with four really good operators. But that brings its own problems, because they all want to play everything. I think there are some spinners - and I don't mean this disrespectfully - who've had success in T20 because they're not particularly consistent or accurate. In red-ball cricket, they get mashed, because people sit on you and wait. You even find that between T20 and 50-over cricket. Natural variation in T20s is useful because batsmen never know what's coming. They could decide to run at a ball that turns out to be your drag-down and end up getting stumped.
There are two legspinners in county cricket - Will Beer at Sussex and Max Waller at Somerset - who are around 28 years old, have played 20 first-class matches between them and yet are still full-time cricketers. Clearly, T20 specialisation is a legitimate way for a young spinner to see their future. Whose choice would that path be: the young spinner or the county?
It has to be theirs, ultimately. Those two bowlers might be examples of what I was talking about with natural variation. When you want men around the bat, in red-ball cricket, that isn't particularly helpful. So it might be a case that they're not getting picked. But T20 has changed the game and it's now a career choice - even for quick blokes, with someone like Tymal Mills, who's got a new lease of life just by bowling four overs a game, which is fantastic for him. But with pushing spinners into T20 specialisation, it comes back to seeing enough potential in someone [for red-ball cricket], players who might not be the finished article but are worth investing in.
But then different clubs have different focuses. For me, the County Championship is the pinnacle and I'd like the majority of my staff to have the ability to play this form of the game. If they can't play red-ball cricket then I'm not sure I've got the right man.
What would you do with someone like Scott Borthwick, who Graeme Swann was really talking up as a bowler a few years ago, who played an Ashes Test, since when he's morphed into a batsman. Is it in the best interests of England that he plays his cricket up in Durham on a pitch that traditionally favours their strong seam attack? Shouldn't he be encouraged to go and play on wickets where he might bowl a bit more?
I can't comment on someone else's career like that, because I'm a director of cricket at an opposing club, but that all comes down to what Scott wants. He got a bit frustrated when [Ian] Blackwell was up there, but he bowled a fair bit against us when we were up there, and I thought his control was much better.
"The game nowadays is full of coaches, advice, support. We're accountable for what players do to a degree, but we also need to make the players accountable. We shouldn't be trying to produce clones"
What do you think of the National Performance Centre at Loughborough's role in producing young spinners?
I think Loughborough does a lot of good stuff. In the past it's had some bad raps. They offer an incredible amount of support for the best players in the country, and even the levels below that - opportunities to train there, scholarships to go abroad. The work they do on innovation - things like spin counters, biomechanics, what the perfect spinner looks like around the world, replicating that in bowling machines - is really good. But the bottom line is, the raw material comes from us. They can't do anything unless we, and the club system below us, produce good raw materials. What they can do then is try to take that player to the next level.
Would they ever knock on your door and make suggestions? Not to tell you how to use a spinner, but just whether they perceive guys as future international players and how they see their development.
Absolutely. Suchy [Peter Such, ECB Lead Spin Coach] will talk to us and ask what we think is best for Matt Parkinson this winter. They'll say: Is it going to play abroad? Is it spending more time with the programme [ECB Elite Player Pathway]? Is it going to Loughborough? Is it staying with you? That sort of support has come a really long way and I don't think we should be fearful of that "intervention". You've got to be careful at what stage that comes and at what level, because you don't want any player getting the wrong idea of where they are in the scheme of things. We have to be very careful not to raise their expectations too high too soon, or their perception of where they are. As long as it's clear that this is a mechanism to help you go further in the game - because we believe you do have that potential - then great.
You think about the spinning geniuses who learned on Indian Ocean beaches or rooftops in Lahore. Is there not a way for the ECB machinery, with its vast resources, to sort of back away and let spinners be for longer, let them be idiosyncratic, stand totally back from any coaching at all?
I go back to my time at Warwickshire. I was lucky in that I joined just as Bob Woolmer was coach. Dermot Reeve was a really innovative and supportive captain. It was an environment where you were encouraged just to try things, provided you'd worked hard at it in practice. I had a quick, swinging arm ball from my days as a seamer, so if it was swinging, Dermot often used to get me on early to see if I could hit the pads.
I also bowled at the death in one-day cricket, which was quite new for a spinner, because I could hit the hole. That's how I started bowling over the wicket. I had time to develop there, but it's a harsh existence, bowling spin. You have to support them, nurture them, give them opportunities. But they have their end of the bargain too.
When I was at Warwickshire the expectation wasn't that I'd come into the side at 21. I had time. Nowadays the pressure for us as directors of cricket is that it's all well and good, just sending them away, letting them go. I could say, "Go off to Australia, Parky, go stand on your own two feet", but if he gets it wrong, or if he changes his action, or someone else tells him to change his action, or if he pisses it up the wall, he's not someone I can afford to say, "Don't worry about it, because he's not playing yet." A lot of our big assets are now 19, 20, 21 years old. You become a little more protective, and all-year-round contracts have bred that as well. But if you're sure about the timing, let them go, whether it be to the subcontinent or Australia.
I remember Matt Hayden went to the subcontinent for a winter to learn how to play spin, and Jesus, he could play. I remember playing against him the next year, a spinning wicket at Edgbaston, and he just kept sweeping the shit out of me. For a player to take that on rather than saying, "Where shall I go: Sydney or Chennai?" Most of them will say Sydney, because Bondi's quite nice.
Do counties have the same connections to Asia as potential clubs for the winter?
We could. There are plenty of programmes now where we could pay or link. And that's something the ECB support: placing guys in different countries and picking up the cost of that, which is great. It is a question of balancing support against letting them grow. Sometimes they just go, click, and just get it. I got stuck in a rut playing for the Second team, then suddenly I got back in the first team and clicked. So it's not a formula. And there's no way you can just manufacture spinners from nowhere.
I guess it's important to have a second string - batting at No. 8 in your case, or being a dynamic fielder - in that it can buy you time. Adil Rashid has stayed central to Yorkshire's plans through some tough times because he also offered a lot with the bat. Does it show the value in nurturing spinners and sticking with them?
It's a tricky one. Rash went right through the programmes. He'd been given all the support, all this information. The ECB said, "You've not realised your potential. Go away." There has to be a cut-off point. It has to be up to the individual. It's a combination of taking in all this information, thinking about things for himself, and now he's older and wiser. It does take time with spin. Clearly he had the potential. It's just trying to realise that. Some people never do.
Ian Bell suggested to Moeen a couple of years ago that he needed to bowl a couple of miles quicker to challenge top international players. Do you feel that in his early career Rashid bowled it too slowly? And is this something that all spinners have to come to terms with now, with the bat technology and gym bunnies, that this has pushed the basic average speed up, of necessity?
Yeah, I think you have to bowl a certain pace, against good players particularly. If you bowl too slow against the better players, they'll just use their feet and mince you. But that depends on your own development and how much intervention is needed. But it's as much about energy on the ball as pace. That sounds a bit contradictory, but if there's energy on the ball it spins, it drops, it drifts. If you haven't got masses of spin, both ways, then those are your variations. The bats have improved, but that's what's in front of you and you have to adapt. In India, with small boundaries for T20, spinners are often the best bowlers. The short forms have seen a resurgence in legspin, and that can maybe feed back into red-ball cricket.
What qualities should a good international spinner have, and what traits would England be looking for in the next generation that comes through?
Someone who can attack and hold at the same time. They need to have control. The spinner generally needs to bat a bit too. A good temperament. But where we are now has been the effect of not just one thing: it's divisional cricket, green wickets, both of which have had a bit of a lag effect. Hopefully, with some of these young spinners that are around, we're fighting back.